Takeaways part 2 of Ted Turner’s Biography. The life of a billionaire and how he built his business and the stories about a guy who has lived multiple lives.
“(Incidentally, throughout my career I’ve been criticized for being a poor negotiator and overpaying for things. But by not hesitating to make quick, aggressive bids, I usually got the deal and even my higher priced acquisitions have turned out to be good investments.) Dan got back to me quickly and told me my offer had been approved. I was elated, but we were only halfway home. The next hurdle was approval from the Major League Baseball owners. In addition to my not fitting their mold, I think I was the first person to try to buy a team with less than 100 percent cash. Some were also concerned about my ultimate intentions on the TV side of things. I would be just the second owner who controlled both a team and its broadcast station (Gene Autry of the California Angels was the first).”
“I was also careful to make sure that Bill Bartholomay agreed to stay on as Braves chairman after our deal closed. Through our previous rights negotiations I learned that he was a man of integrity and I knew that the other owners liked and respected him. Major League Baseball was a new world to me and Bill’s presence would be very helpful. We successfully resolved our financing and league approval issues through the fall of ’75, and in January ’76 Turner Communications Group took over as owner of the Atlanta Braves.”
“I became friends with Bill Veeck of the Chicago White Sox. Bill was known for being a lot less traditional than his peers and he and I hit it off. Together we decided to get our nonroster players together to play what we called a “nongame” that we could televise back in Chicago and Atlanta. As a show of support for our advertising partners, we gave them free airtime in the telecast and it turned out to be a big win all the way around. The players got some practice, the fans saw a game, our sponsors got free airtime, and we generated a lot of good publicity. The lockout ended a couple of days later, but if it hadn’t, I’m sure we would have tried to do more games.”
“So the very next day, there I was suited up and training with the Atlanta Braves. I did this for about three weeks and debriefed Ted every night. He is such a quick learner and his memory is so strong that his understanding of the game of baseball went from zero to 100 percent during that short period.”
“As strange as the whole thing was, I think it confirmed to everyone that Ted was going to do things his way and for most people in the Braves organization he was a real breath of fresh air. For me, it was just another example of how my career with Turner would never be dull.”
“During the lockout I decided to stir things up and jump into the middle of one of that year’s highest-profile player negotiations. As I learned about the game, everyone told me that strong pitching would be the key to turning the team around, and the big free agent going into 1976 was a pitcher many considered to be among the league’s best. His name was Andy Messersmith. As you might imagine, I wasn’t the only one interested in him and I soon found myself in the middle of a bidding contest with, among others, George Steinbrenner of the New York Yankees. Steinbrenner was every bit as competitive as I was and he was in the country’s number one TV market and had deep pockets. He saw free agency as a huge opportunity and he wanted to make Messersmith one of his first blockbuster signings. As hard as it was going up against the Yankees, Messersmith’s agent did nothing to help matters. I was pretty sure he was simply using my offer to increase the bidding by Steinbrenner and the other interested owners. By the end of March, the Yankees were declared the winners of the Messersmith sweepstakes.”
“for me—heck, I was the owner and I had a mustache. Suddenly, we were back in the running and I moved quickly. With Steinbrenner out of the way I was in front of Messersmith with a big smile and a big offer, and about a week later, he signed with the Atlanta Braves for more than $1 million over three years. That doesn’t sound like much today but it was big money back then. This was a high-profile signing and the fact that we’d landed him ahead of the New York Yankees really pleased our fans. We hadn’t played a game yet, but we’d created a ton of excitement going into opening day.”
“We had acquired him in the off-season and there was a buzz in the stadium when he stepped to the plate. In his first at bat with the Braves he hit the team’s first home run of the season. The crowd —me included—went absolutely wild. I was so caught up in the excitement that without even thinking I jumped over the wall in front of my seat and ran onto the field. By the time Henderson rounded third I was standing at home plate with the other players ready to shake his hand! Not being a big fan I didn’t think that what I had done was all that unusual but by the time I made it back to my seat I could sense that I’d created a stir.”
“I went on many road trips in those early days and made a point to meet with as many of the other teams’ owners and executives as I could, in part to get to know them but also to learn the business and figure out how to do a better job of running our franchise. On one trip I realized other teams put out onions and relish for hot dogs and hamburgers, but in Atlanta, we only had mustard and ketchup. I ordered that we add onions and relish. In every business I’ve ever been in it’s been clear that doing even the smallest things to take care of your customers is essential and running a ball club was no different.”
“I’d ask them why didn’t they get to know their guys any better? Go out and have a beer with them or invite them over to your house for a party? Who knows—maybe if they had tried that in the past, there never would have been a union in the first place.”
“I wouldn’t let the baseball establishment get me down. I had worked my way into the broadcasting and sailing communities and I was determined to do the same in baseball.”
“I wanted them to know I was a competitor—that I would do anything for the team, even if it meant getting down on all fours and bloodying my face.”
“They got to be batboys and girls on occasion and we’d have players over to our house for birthday parties. I did everything I could to keep the relationship between the players and myself, and between the team and our fans, as informal as possible. In our TV ads we called the Braves “The Big League team with the Little League spirit!” and Bob Hope thought it would be fun for our home uniforms to have the players’ nicknames on them instead of their usual names. So instead of “Jones” it might say “Jonesy,” or for the famous knuckleballer Phil Niekro, his jersey said “Knucksie.” Andy Messersmith, our high-profile pitcher, also had flair for the dramatic and came to me and said, “Hey, Ted—how about giving me number seventeen and making my nickname ‘Channel’?” What a great idea! Next thing you know, one of the most famous pitchers in the game is taking the mound with “Channel 17” on his back—I loved it! Unfortunately, commissioner Bowie Kuhn didn’t. He told me this was considered advertising and there were league rules against putting commercial messages on jerseys. Oh, well. It was fun while it lasted and we drummed up publicity in the meantime.”
“My answer was simple. The million dollars spent on Messersmith could help us win games, put fans in the seats, and pull in viewers. If anyone could show me that bigger rooms for front office staff would help us accomplish any of those things, I’d have paid for those as well.”
“Those totaled about 125 teams with twenty-five players per—more than three thousand players. Once I understood how complicated this was I concluded that the general manager I inherited was not up to the job. He was a pleasant guy and had been around the game a long time but I didn’t think he was good enough. I remember him walking me around a minor league complex and when we’d pass a player I’d ask, “Who’s that?” Half the time he didn’t know. The way I saw it, the players were our investment, and as the person running the business, he should be familiar with them. For some major league owners, the teams were just a hobby. After being successful in other fields, owning a team satisfied their egos and gave them publicity. I felt like some of that trickled down through the management ranks and a lot of these guys didn’t work as hard as I felt they should.”
“was a big job but Bill had a tremendous work ethic and a knowledge about his players that really impressed me. When I promoted him, I didn’t realize he would be baseball’s first-ever black general manager—I was simply putting the best guy I knew in the position. He did a great job, and in the process, we became close friends. Then, early in the 1979 season Bill suffered a massive aneurism and passed away. He was only a couple years older than I and the news floored me. Seeing such a young, vibrant guy taken away also made me stop and think about what a short time we all have on this planet and I became more determined than ever to keep moving—to grow the company and make a difference in the world.”
“I personally caught two foul balls in three games—one in Atlanta and another in St. Louis—I’d be willing to bet that an owner has never done this before or since.)”
“It was time for another quantum leap. I concluded that what we needed was a bigger footprint—a broader territory and larger number of viewers. Broadcast networks accomplished this by assembling a string of owned and/or affiliated stations across the country but from where we were, duplicating that model was almost impossible. I had to figure out a different way. I used to compare myself to the bear that went over the mountain to see what he could see, and now it was time to take another look. In the mid-1970s, Channel 17 was the only independent station in a major southeastern market outside of Florida, and the Braves were the only Major League Baseball franchise in the region. I knew that our programming would be of interest to viewers outside Atlanta. I also saw that in places like Albany and Macon, Georgia, people were signing up for a new service to get local stations they were unable to tune in with their antenna and/or a better picture for stations they were already receiving.”
“To learn more I decided to go to my first National Cable Television Association, or NCTA, meeting. There I learned about experiments undertaken by broadcasters and cable operators to use microwave technology to relay signals from broadcast towers to the cable plant. From there, the signal was sent down a cable into the subscriber’s home. This made sense to me and I could see an immediate, clear path toward expanding WTCG’s reach. I learned a lot at this meeting and I met some great industry people, including an NCTA researcher named Don Andersson. Don was a smart guy, and not only did he understand how these new technologies worked, he also grasped the promise they held for aggressive independent broadcasters. Realizing I needed someone with Don’s expertise I hired him and put him in charge of figuring out how we could use microwave technology to expand our territory and market our service to the young cable industry.”
“Microwave distribution technology was straightforward, but there were limitations. Signals were relayed from one transfer tower to another, but the stations required a direct line of sight between them and could be no more than twenty-five miles apart. With one of these relays costing about $35,000 to set up, it took about $150,000 to go just one hundred miles in one direction; a lot of money for fledgling cable companies. Making this investment even riskier, consumers were accustomed to getting their TV signal for free. Convincing them to pay was no small challenge but the cable TV companies understood that independent programming from distant markets was a logical way to entice subscribers and WTCG was a good candidate to play this role. Before long, Channel 17 was delivered to places like Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, and Anniston, Alabama; Albany and Savannah, Georgia; and Tallahassee, Florida. These early systems only had capacity to carry a maximum of twelve channels, but once ours was in these lineups we were just as easy to tune in and our signal was just as clear as the others. Not only did we reach new markets, once we got there, we competed on a level field.”
“With Don Andersson’s introduction I became friendly with cable TV operators. Always believing in keeping one’s customer happy, I was eager to get to know these new affiliates and I wanted them to like me. I remember a guy who was running a cable system in Atlanta inviting me to Myrtle Beach for a meeting with the Southern Cable Television Association. He wanted me to speak to them about my ideas for microwave transmission and told me how I’d be the first friendly broadcaster they’d ever met. Back then, broadcasters saw cable operators as the enemy. For many years, local TV stations had a monopoly and they viewed cable operators with fear and suspicion. It was one thing when cable helped them improve their signals and get full penetration of their home markets, but quite another when they started importing distant stations. One time, the manager of a Florida station got angry when Channel 17 starting coming into his area. He asked me to stay out of his territory and I replied, “What do you mean, ‘your territory’? If we can get our signal there, it’s our territory, too!” As far as I was concerned, our territory was the United States, and later the world! This all sounded great but the truth was, adding new viewers via microwave and cable did not help us generate much incremental advertising revenue. When we spoke to media buyers outside Atlanta, all they wanted was ABC, NBC, and CBS. They were used to making two different buys—local and national—and a regional outlet like ours didn’t fit in their plans. We quickly concluded that the only way to generate revenue from our expanded audience was through direct response ads—the ones that sell the latest record compilation or steak knives and end with a phone number to call to purchase the products. To make the most of this opportunity I hired a merchandising man from Atlanta’s Rich’s department store and sent him to all the trade shows where people showed off their latest inventions.”
“I was convinced that we had to be on the same satellite as HBO. At the time, satellite-receiving antennas cost cable operators about $100,000 apiece, but if I teamed up with HBO, they’d get two channels for the price of one.”
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